May Day And the Burning Hearts of Poet-Patriots
Phil Ochs showed me where poetry, song, imagination and conscience converged. In an age when America was misled by its virulent domestic and foreign policies, Phil was a true patriot who loved this land as much as he hated its injustices. During the turbulent 60s, Phil was the troubadour voice of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. His songs, notably Draft Dodger Rag, Here’s to the State of Mississippi, One More Parade and Too Many Martyrs, became anthems. Phil sang at every
important demonstration for eight long years; his steel string guitar ringing out luminous and strident lyrics…
I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all war
Oh, I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore
As the Vietnam War came to a close, Phil traveled to Chile in 1972, where a socialist government had come to power in a popular election. Marxist Salvador Allende was its president and the world’s greatest living poet, Pablo Neruda, was ambassador to France. Poets and songwriters had come to Chile prior to the election, and their stirring words and lyrics had urged on the miraculous changes. This was a balm to Phil’s damaged spirits. His dream of a progressive and just America had been shattered during the 1968 Democratic Convention, when Chicago’s Mayor Daley let loose the brutality of the local police force on peaceful demonstrators; but this elysian respite in South America was brief.
In 1973, war criminal, Henry Kissinger, made a deal with the devil. The (originally Nazi) IT&T corporation funded a violent CIA-aided coup that overthrew the new regime in return for the US dropping anti-trust legislation against them. Allende and Neruda were murdered, as were hundreds of poets and songwriters, many to whom Phil had grown close.
Phil suffered from bipolarity and was a heavy drinker. As a result, because he burned so brightly with the fires of justice and humanism, his mind began to fail him when these atrocities built up. Another issue was Bob Dylan….
I used to catch Phil’s act at the Third Side coffee house in the Village in the early 60s. It was there that he introduced me to Dylan’s songs, when the friendship between the two was strong. But when Dylan stopped writing protest songs and began to rail against Phil, the two parted ways. Furthermore, when the Chilean junta twisted his mind, Phil became obsessed with Dylan’s absence.
When Phil designed Changes, his bar on Broome Street and Broadway, opening night was marred by a rag-wearing, hoodie-obscured crazy street person who swirled around the front doors, making it hard to enter. People were annoyed, until they realized that Phil was the madman. During more lucid moments, the two of us had beers at the bar. However, Phil would ramble on about hiring the Mafia to kidnap Dylan and un-brainwash him. Why else, Phil wondered, would Dylan stop writing protests?
I got to buttonhole Martin Scorsese at the premiere of No Direction Home, his Dylan opus. “Why no Phil Ochs?” I wanted to know. He grew uneasy, so I made it easy for him. “Too embarrassing?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said.
The film, There but for Fortune by Ken Bowser, is a good way to learn about this very important American singer-poet; the albums are still out there.
The passions that burnt him out left us with an ironic list of Phil Ochs’ death songs: There But for Fortune, I’m Gonna Say it Now, When I’m Gone. The art on his album, Rehearsals for Retirement, is his tombstone, an appropriate and simple epitaph, “Phil Ochs (American) Born El Paso, Texas 1940, Died Chicago, Illinois 1968.” Being a poet inevitably leads to misadventures of the heart; and this was the biggest heart of all.